"I Know Nothing About Music"
A review of Rick Rubin's new book on creativity
Books about creativity have a notoriously poor track record.
Often, they’re trying to wrap words around a process that’s inherently ineffable. I recall liking both The Artist’s Way and The Creative Habit back when I read them, but now, a few years later, I can’t remember much of either one. In other cases, decent books are ruined by their creators’ flaws. Pixar’s Creativity Inc lost a bit of its luster once it came out that their cofounder John Lasseter had been getting pretty “creative” with how he hugged his female employees. And of course there was Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine, which was taken out of print once journalists revealed that Lehrer had himself imagined many of the book’s supposed facts.
Into this wreckage steps Rick Rubin, who so far remains unaccused of either harassment or fabulism, with his new book The Creative Act: A Way of Being. Rubin is known for wearing sunglasses indoors, being in that one Jay-Z video, and looking like if Buddha joined ZZ Top. Also, for producing music across an impressively genre-spanning array of artists: the Beastie Boys, Linkin Park, Weezer, Adele, Neil Diamond, the Wu-Tang Clan—the list goes on. He revitalized Johnny Cash’s career, tried and failed to revitalize Eminem’s, and produced the last album Kanye put out before both he and his music became terrible.
Rubin has succeeded in spite of—or, more likely, because of—his unorthodox approach, illustrated well by this recent viral 60 Minutes clip in which he claims to “know nothing about music”:
His book is equally unorthodox. Approached to write the story of his life and career, he instead put out a philosophical treatise on creativity in which he doesn’t name-drop a single artist and reveals almost none of what’s happened inside his studio.
I’ve always had a high opinion of Rick Rubin, but I’m easily fooled by an alliterative name and a mellifluous voice. So I picked up his book to find out whether his ideas packed the same punch when separated from his aesthetic.
I wasn’t disappointed. The Creative Act blew past my admittedly-low bar for this kind of thing to become the best book on creativity I’ve ever read.
The moment I realized this book was different
I first realized this would be unlike any other book on creativity about a quarter of the way in, when Rubin tells the story of the day he learned about AlphaGo, Google’s Go-playing computer program. At the time, Go was regarded as the most challenging game for an AI to master due to its incredible complexity—the number of possible board configurations exceeds the number of atoms in the universe. Unlike older bots, AlphaGo wasn’t programmed with specific knowledge about how to play Go; instead, it used the then-new technique of machine learning to teach itself, playing as its own opponent over and over and learning from its mistakes each time.
The result was an entirely new form of gameplay. When Deep Blue beat Kasparov at chess in 1996, it played like a super-smart human. When AlphaGo beat one of the world’s top Go grandmasters twenty years later, it played like an alien, choosing moves no human player would ever make. Rubin writes:
Upon first hearing this story, I found myself in tears, and confused by this sudden swell of emotion. After further reflection, I realized that the story spoke to the power of purity in the creative act.
What was it that allowed a machine to devise a move no one steeped in the game had ever made in thousands of years of play?
It wasn’t necessarily its intelligence. It was the fact that the machine learned the game from scratch, with no coach, no human intervention, no lessons based on an expert’s past experience. The AI followed the fixed rules, not the millennia of accepted cultural norms attached to them. It wasn’t held back by limiting beliefs
Did the computer win because it knew more than the grandmaster or because it knew less?
Rubin isn’t particularly into technology. He’s not one of those producers like George Martin who innovates by pushing the bounds of what’s technically possible; when working, he usually lies on his back with his eyes closed, away from the soundboard. And yet, to illustrate beginner’s mind, he picks a story whose protagonist is a compute program. It speaks to his powerful ability to tap into his own beginner’s mind that this unconventional example is the one he chooses.
Art as byproduct
Rubin has an unusual philosophy that frames artistic output as the incidental byproduct of a creative way of life. Inspiration is all around us, he says, but most of the time, we overlook it. Creativity is about learning to tap into these ideas, which you do through cultivating awareness in a very Buddhist-inspired way (more on that later). In this paradigm, you don’t really “think” of ideas; you create space for them to arrive. Creativity isn’t the process of creating art, it’s a way of life, and any art that gets produced is just a byproduct.
This is all part of Rubin’s belief that creativity is unleashed by lowering the stakes, both to take some of the pressure off and to reduce a filter that may be unhelpfully (and often subconsciously) rejecting promising ideas in their early, inchoate form. “Brilliant” ideas rarely look brilliant at first, so if that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll have a hard time finding any.
This reminded me of one of the biggest lessons I took from starting a company (and fittingly, Rubin includes a few business things as examples of creative work, though this book is mostly geared towards artists). Before I’d ever founded a startup myself, coming up with startup ideas seemed impossible. Now I have them all the time. The key is that I learned to dramatically lower my bar for what counts as a “startup idea.” They’re hardly full-fledged business plans; they’re more like inklings—hey, I wonder if this could be different or hey, I wonder why that works the way it does. The same goes for art: a song idea can start as two notes; an essay idea can start as a single sentence.
Effort vs. persistence
Rubin is a serious meditator who gets extra credit for having picked up the habit way before it was as trendy as it is today. Though his book only occasionally mentions meditation directly, he’s clearly taken a lot of lessons from his practice. One I particularly appreciated was the distinction between effort and persistence.
Paradoxically, if you’re trying to achieve a creative breakthrough, trying really hard rarely works. “In the creative process,” Rubin says, “it’s often more difficult to accomplish a goal by aiming at it.” The cliché of the idea that emerges spontaneously in the shower, after you’ve stopped consciously thinking about it, exists for a reason.
The secret, inasmuch as there is one, is to apply persistence instead of effort. Don’t sit down to write once and try really hard to write well; try really hard to build a life where you write all the time, and then don’t worry about how well you’re writing during any individual session.
This is extremely similar to how meditation works. As any meditation teacher will tell you—and much to my frustration—there is no such thing as “being good at meditation,” and trying to “do a good job” while meditating will inevitably lead you astray. Where the effort comes in is in pushing yourself to meditate regularly, but once you actually sit down to do it, you want to let go of any conscious sensation of trying.
Over time, you’ll probably find yourself making progress regardless. As Rubin says, “even spontaneity gets better with practice.”
On the other hand
This is undoubtedly the best book about creativity I’ve ever read. But is there actually much value to any book about creativity? Perhaps reading about creativity is no different from that famous quip about writing about music—no more sensible than “dancing about architecture.”
To his credit, Rubin acknowledges this. In the book—and in his life—he adopts the Zen-like posture of the so-called “expert” whose expertise lies in recognizing how little he, or anyone else, actually knows. I’m sure this attitude is partly an affectation, but it’s extremely refreshing, especially in a world of Twitter gurus with ten-step lists and TikTok influencers who tell you that becoming a creator starts with buying the right pens. Those are extreme examples, of course, but most well-known books on creativity are still much more prescriptive than Rubin (take, for example, The Artist’s Way’s infamous morning pages exercise), usually to their detriment.
My single favorite line in the book, and one that perfectly illustrates this ethos, is when Rubin offhandedly mentions that trying the opposite of everything he suggests will probably work just as well.
The Creative Act genuinely seems to have resulted from the practices it promotes, which is more than you can say for most other books of its kind. Nonetheless, the question remains: can a book actually make you more creative? My guess would be no, not really—that even in the best-case scenario, the impact this or any other book can have is likely to be extremely marginal.
Art, though, can’t be evaluated for its utility alone. I don’t recommend this book as an instruction manual consumed for its practical effects. But I do recommend it, strongly, as a work of art consumed for its own sake.
Allegedly, that is. I have encountered this fact several times and still don’t understand how we know how many atoms are in the universe.
David Mamet’s incredible quip notwithstanding:
Reporter: Where do you get your ideas?
Mamet: I think of them.